The first time I saw Joseph Heller, back in the late '60s, he was delivering a speech at New York University. That night, he revealed his plans for the future. "I'm going to live forever," he said, "or die trying."
On Sunday night, he died trying. A heart attack did what Nazi antiaircraft gunners failed to do back in World War II. The author of "Catch-22" and seven other books was 76.
The first and only time I had lunch with Heller was last year. It was the early days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which he was enjoying tremendously.
"I love it!" he said, smiling broadly beneath a fluffy halo of bright white hair. "The fact that it's so ridiculous is what makes it so exquisitely entertaining to me."
Heller was a connoisseur of the absurd. The scandal was providing delicious new realms of ludicrousness that not even he could have imagined. A few days earlier, Lewinsky's soon-to-be-fired attorney, William Ginsburg, had complained that his client's life was ruined, that nobody would ever again want to date her or hire her.
"I wanted to call and say, 'I'll date you! I'll hire you!' " he cackled uproariously. Then he went back to his crab cakes. The man loved to eat.
I was supposed to be interviewing Heller about his latest book, "Now and Then," a chatty, charming memoir of his boyhood in Coney Island and his adventures as a bombardier in World War II. But I spent most of the time asking him about "Catch-22," which is my favorite novel of all time. It's a strange, convoluted, grim, hilarious war novel that seems to suggest that the whole world is completely insane. This message confirmed suspicions I held when I first read it in 1968, and it has been corroborated countless times since then.
I told Heller that his crazy book had helped keep me sane. He smiled. He heard similar comments nearly every time he ventured out in public. At a reading the previous night, a man stood up and publicly thanked Heller for "Catch-22." "I read your book the day before I got called up for Vietnam," he said, "and I have to tell you, it helped."
A year earlier, in Prague, people kept buttonholing Heller to tell him that bootlegged copies of "Catch-22" had served as an antidote to the absurdities of life under communism.
Translated into nearly every written language, "Catch-22" has sold well over 20 million copies. It still sells briskly wherever human beings feel tormented by crazed bosses and mindless bureaucracies--which is to say, just about everywhere on the planet.
It is ostensibly the story of a U.S. bomb squadron in the Mediterranean during World War II and a bombardier named Yossarian who is driven crazy by the Germans, who keep shooting at him when he drops bombs on them, and by his American superiors, who seem less concerned about winning the war than they are about parades, loyalty oaths and getting promoted.
Yossarian is so crazy that he should be excused from combat but, alas, there's a catch, Catch-22: You can't be excused unless you ask to be excused, and anybody who asks to get out of combat is obviously sane and therefore ineligible to be excused.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," Yossarian said.
"It's the best there is," said his buddy Doc Daneeka.
They were right. The term entered common language and earned a place in the dictionary. I read Heller the official definition from Webster's: "a paradox in a law, regulation or practice that makes one a victim of its provisions no matter what one does."
"That's a better definition than I could give," he said, smiling.
"Catch-22" begat several of its own Catch-22s. When it was published in 1961, critics complained that it was plotless, repetitive and incomprehensible. When the rest of his novels appeared, critics complained that he had again failed to write a book as good as "Catch-22." Heller always had an answer for that: "Who has?"
In 1998, a letter printed in the London Sunday Times kicked up a brief literary controversy by suggesting that many of the scenes in "Catch-22" were similar to scenes in an earlier war novel, "The Sky Is a Lonely Place," by Louis Falstein. The insinuation was absurd. It wasn't the depiction of life in a bomber squadron that made Heller's novel a classic; it was its grand comic vision of the absurdity of modern life.
Heller said he'd never read Falstein's novel. "I find it funny," he added, "that nobody else noticed any similarities, including Falstein himself."
Heller never spent much time in Washington, but his writing revealed that he understood the culture of the federal city as well as any reporter. In "Closing Time," his 1994 sequel to "Catch-22," he captured the life of a hotshot K Street lawyer in the fictitious firm of Atwater, Fitzwater, Dishwater, Brown, Jordan, Quack and Capone: "He served often on governmental commissions to exonerate and as co-author of reports to vindicate." That novel also provided the most accurate extant definition of the Freedom of Information Act: "a federal regulation obliging government agencies to release all information they had to anyone who made application for it, except information they had that they did not want to release."
Life had a way of turning Heller's most outrageous satire into banal realities. In 1979's "Good as Gold," he invented a president who spent his first year in office writing a book about his first year in office. This seemed far-fetched until New York Mayor Ed Koch and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura spent their time in office writing books. In "Catch-22," Milo Minderbinder, the wheeler-dealer supply officer, actually contracts with his enemies to bomb his own squadron. Critics considered this ridiculous until Oliver North, a Marine working for the United States government, sold missiles to the same Iranian government that had earlier supported the terrorists who bombed a Marine barracks in Lebanon.
Joe Heller is dead but "Catch-22" will live forever. He would have preferred the opposite, but what can you do? Death is the ultimate Catch-22.
CAPTION: Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" has been translated into nearly every written language, selling more than 20 million copies worldwide since 1961.
CAPTION: Joseph Heller in 1998. His "Catch-22" still sells briskly wherever human beings feel tormented by crazed bosses and mindless bureaucracies.